It was the mantra that took over the world.
George Harrison's first solo number one single stands alone in the history of rock music for going against the secular grain as a full-on love song to the Creator. Sure, there'd been some precedent with both The Beach Boys' God Only Knows and Norman Greenbaum's Spirit In The Sky, but My Sweet Lord was different. The lyric is loaded with forty “Lords,” sixteen “Hallelujahs” and nine “Hare Krishnas.”
As John Lennon joked about his former bandmate's hit in 1970, “Every time I put the radio on, it's 'Oh my Lord.' I'm beginning to think there must be a God.”
Harrison started writing the song while he was on tour with Delaney & Bonnie in Sweden in late 1969. His inspiration was Oh Happy Day, an old gospel tune, rearranged in 1967 by The Edwin Hawkins Singers. Responding to that record's joyful call-and-response vibe, Harrison said, “It really just knocked me out... I just felt a great feeling of the Lord. So I thought, 'I'll write another Oh Happy Day, which became My Sweet Lord.”
Harrison knew the song was both a departure and a commercial risk.
“I was sticking my neck out on the chopping block,” he wrote in his autobiography I Me Mine. “I thought a lot about whether to do it or not, because I would be committing myself publicly and I anticipated that a lot of people might get weird about it.”
But he was driven by an aim much loftier than simply getting a song on the charts. Raised Catholic, George had become interested in Hinduism in the mid-60s. It was he who suggested that three Indian gurus be featured on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, and in 1968, he convinced The Beatles to attend the Rishikesh retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In Harrison's mind, My Sweet Lord could be both a call to faith and a way to transcend barriers between various religions. He said, “'Hallelujah' and 'Hare Krishna' are quite the same thing.”
Harrison first gave the song to Billy Preston, who recorded it for his 1970 album Encouraging Words. For George's own version, producer Phil Spector assembled an all-star cast, including Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton, Ringo Starr, Alan White and all four members of Badfinger. That thrilling intro is the sound of five hands strumming across thirty strings, what George called “one huge guitar.” Dropping in his electric slide, a ragged. beseeching vocal that yearns upwards over the song's key modulations and a lively female chorus, the song crescendoes into what Harrison called “a mystical sound vibration.”
As that vibration topped the world's charts and pushed George's All Things Must Pass LP to #1, it also caught the attention of Bright Tunes, a publishing company, who heard a similarity to a song they controlled – The Chiffons' 1963 hit He's So Fine, written by Ronnie Mack. They filed suit for copyright infringement. The verdict of “subconscious plagiarism” cost Harrison $1.6 million and set a precedent for many similar lawsuits in the decades to come.
Of the case, George said, “The only shame about it was if the writer of He's So Fine had been alive in the first place, there probably would have never been a lawsuit. God knows I never sued anybody about all the songs of mine that got stolen.”
In the end, it's My Sweet Lord, not He's So Fine, that has endured. And really, George just borrowed a few bricks from a silly pop song and built the Taj Mahal.